I met quite a character in the express lane at Publix the other day. That tends to happen when you walk around smiling and making eye contact with strangers. That tends to happen to me a lot. You should give it a try. I don’t always get smiles back. And many people avert their eyes in any other direction but mine. Yet I still keep doing it. Mostly for that person who looks right into my eyes and gives me a warm smile back. It’s like we’re saying to each other, “thanks for doing this hard thing called life with me today.” Life is hard. I enjoy making it a little more pleasant with eye contact and smiles.
Anyway. I’m standing in the express lane with my items laid out neatly when I notice on the cover of People that Bill Paxton has died. And I’m thinking to myself – how did I miss this? My first reaction is to reach into my bag to grab my phone and as I do so, I turn my head to the guy behind me, notice his kind eyes, and smile. I look back down to my phone and I can feel him moving closer to me. Actually if I’m completely honest, I can smell him moving closer as he says, “it’s amazing what you can learn about someone from the items they have on the grocery belt.” And I’m not sure what surprises me more. The fact that he has begun to invade my personal space or that his breath is so pungent, I am certain he must have a tube of Colgate in his basket.
And so I play along. He begins to point out that I have a six pack of beer, a container of cold-brewed coffee, and eggs. He makes note that I have a lot of eggs. Twenty four to be exact. I refrain from explaining the exorbitant amount of eggs I’m buying. He doesn’t need to know I’m eating a lot of eggs lately because they require less chewing. Prior to learning my mouth would soon be shut, I most likely would have justified myself. And it would have been a waste of time. Then he proceeds to point out what the guy in front of me is buying, too, and that’s when things get a little interesting. You see, the guy ahead of me is clad in so much leather it seems he has popped right out of a Sons of Anarchy episode. In fact, the guy behind me calls him a “hardcore biker dude.” Loudly. He’s buying two blocks of cream cheese along with a tub of cottage cheese. I shit you not!
I get a little uncomfortable at this point because the biker dude begins to realize that the guy behind me with the rank breath is actually analyzing the items he’s taking home. And so he comes back with, “yes, lox and bagels with a little Perrier!” I can’t tell if he’s being serious or sarcastic, and in my nervousness I say, “sounds delicious.” I hate lox. And right about now, I’m pretty sure this guy hates the guy who’s invaded my space even more. Maybe he can smell his breath, too. I try to ignore the guy behind me after all this ensues. I’m now simply nodding and smiling to whatever it is he’s saying. I’m uncomfortable. I’ve stopped listening. And I just want the biker dude to buy his damn cheese so I can get a move on. Finally, he does.
Nadine begins ringing up my beer, coffee, and eggs. I make note of her name and make sure that I use it. They say the sweetest sound in the world is that of your own name. I agree with them. I can hear the guy begin talking again. Only this time, he gets my attention. I listen. He starts philosophizing about what a waste of life it is to walk around with masks on our faces and how we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. He points out that the biker dude with all of his cheese is going home to drink Perrier. And I start thinking about this path of vulnerability and transparency that I’ve been peering down the last couple of years. And I realize that I was meant to meet this guy. I was meant to listen to him. Smelly breath and all. And so we begin a conversation about how exhausting life can be when we wear our masks. And though our chat lasts no longer than a minute, I can feel myself relax having connected with a likeminded soul. Having validated with another being that yes, life is hard never mind having to keep up with our masks.
It’s the express lane. Nadine has packed me up. I grab my bags and look up at my new friend. We exchange farewells. He’s holding a pack of razors. I guess he doesn’t need the Colgate after all, just a clean shave. I walk out of Publix with my twenty four eggs and notice that the biker dude is parked just two spots away from mine. He’s backing up his big twin with Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” blaring from his speakers. I give him a smile. He does not smile back. Maybe he’s wearing his mask.
Pulling out of the parking lot, I catch a glimpse of the man with kind eyes. He’s smiling broadly and saying something to an older lady as she’s passing by. He’s still holding his razor blades. No bag. And that’s when I’m overcome with gratitude for having smiled. For having made eye contact. For having had the chance to listen. I chuckle as I hear myself say aloud, “I’m so glad I didn’t tell him about my jaw.” Then I remember, Bill Paxton has died. And I think to myself – how did I miss this?